At the beginning of my senior year in high school, my family moved to another state. It was difficult for many reasons. The hardest one was that I was leaving a girlfriend (who would eventually become my wife). This was back before the internet and FaceTime. Cell phones were still a thing of the future, and long-distance calls were expensive. Yet Christine and I somehow managed to keep our relationship going, eventually attending the same college. But I can say this with conviction: long-distance relationships are difficult.
The ability to have Zoom meetings has made this present pandemic, with so much isolation, more tolerable. Yet, I still long to be with people in person. There are some things that can only be communicated, imparted, and received when we’re together in the flesh! Christine and I enjoyed our overpriced phone calls and hand-written letters during that last year of high school. But the real thrill came counting down the days to each visit when we would actually be together (and we managed several throughout that year). Those were the moments when I paid attention to every movement, posture, facial expression, fragrance. Her words and smile resonated in my mind and heart in a way that wasn’t possible over the phone. Those visits cemented our love for each other and are part of the foundation of our relationship to this day.
What a Loving Creator Will Do
God began His love affair with humans in person, in a Garden. But through our own fault, we were separated. He provided an opportunity for a long-distance relationship with willing people through laws and regulations He gave. But while these commandments revealed some aspects of God’s desires and character, intimate connection was painfully difficult to develop merely through a written code.
And at a certain point in human history, God decided it was time for a visit.
The way He showed up was a surprise, and even a shock, for everyone. The circumstances surrounding His arrival, however, revealed vital qualities about what He values and what He’s really like. He became a full-fledged human, starting out as a baby in the womb of a poor woman. His humility and eagerness to identify with us could not have been expressed more intensely and completely.
Jesus then grew up experiencing everything humans experience, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). He was fully human, and yet He was fully God – a mystery to be sure. When His followers asked Him to show them the Heavenly Father, He told them that when they looked at Him, they were looking at the Father (John 14:9). What He spoke was remembered, recorded, and treasured like no other words ever uttered. And ultimately, He demonstrated His love and commitment to relationship with all humans by choosing to suffer and die an agonizing death on our behalf.
None of this could have been accomplished long-distance.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Exercising His divine power, He rose from the dead with a glorified, but still physical, body. Returning to His heavenly dwelling, He sent His Spirit to help us, teach us, comfort us, and empower us while we anticipate His final visit. Actually, it won’t be a visit at all but a permanent end to the long wait for God’s tangible presence. Heaven will be joined with earth (spiritual intertwined with physical – another mystery) and Jesus will tangibly live with us forever. That is something to look forward to regardless the mess we find ourselves in right now.
The Reason for the Season
Christmas marks the beginning of the end of our long-distance relationship with the divine. It was exceedingly difficult for humans to know what God was like before Jesus came. What He revealed has the power to transform our cloudy, twisted understanding of God, if we’ll let it. One of the names Jesus has been given is Emmanuel, which means God with us. He’s simply inviting us to embrace the divine initiative that the God of heaven has physically come down to us!
With all the stuff that makes up our present-day understanding of Christmas, let’s drill down to the bottom line. The presents, the trees, the lights, the food, the traditions, and even the family gatherings are all secondary at best. They’re nice, but hollow if they’re the only things we embrace about this season. God has come so that we can know Him, not just know about Him.
The images we see of the baby in a manger with shepherds and barn animals need not be just a sweet holiday picture. Instead, we must stop and reflect on what God is communicating through this very concrete depiction of humble identification with those in the lowliest circumstances. Yet portrayals of His connections with the wealthy and the learned are there for us to reflect on too. The Wise Men remind us that He is our king, and regardless our present station in life, He must be honored as such (read Choosing to Follow the Magi).
Long-distance relationships aren’t bad for the short-term. It worked for Christine and me. But true love and commitment can only be established for the long-term once the two individuals physically come together. It’s the way of love. And God knows this better than any of us. Let’s get to know Jesus and learn to appreciate the full impact of His coming to earth, and His promise to return permanently.
I invite you to celebrate Christmas this year for what it is: a welcome party!